Benicia Planning Commission Overturns Historic Preservation Review Commission Decision

The Planning Commission decided the owners of 410 West J Street can use new vinyl windows but were quick to point out it isn't a precedent setting decision.

It took two votes and a lot of hand wringing on the part of some commissioners, but in the end the Benicia Planning Commission voted 5-1 to overturn a that the owners of 410 West J Street either repair three wood windows or replace them with new wood windows instead of vinyl windows.

The applicants, Claudia and Julian Fraser, were very happy with the decision and called their window contractor immediately after commissioners voted.  “I think the job can get done in a day,” said Julian Fraser.  The new windows are paintable vinyl and are the same size as the existing windows so no additional framing will be required to install them.

The Fraser’s were issued a permit to replace seven windows in their home but were then told they couldn't move forward when it was discovered that five of the windows they were proposing to change in their historic district home were wood and not vinyl.  When the permit was issued city staff believed all the windows being replaced were vinyl.

At its October 27 meeting, the HPRC, in what some commissioners considered a compromise decision voted to allow replacement of two wood windows on either side of the house with new vinyl windows because they weren't visible from the street but required that the three wood windows on the front of the home remain wood. 

It was that compromise, in part, that may have led to the Planning Commission overturning their recommendation.  Commission chair Brad Thomas noted that he spent an hour at the site looking at the front and side windows as well as the prominent front window that is already vinyl.

“The windows on the side, they can be vinyl,” said Thomas.  “Walking down the street, going from both directions, when I look up, and when I look at the front of the building I saw the windows on the side that would be replaced with vinyl as well.”

Thomas also noted that the prominent window on the front of the house will continue to be vinyl and that all the other windows in the home are vinyl.

Historic Preservation Review Commission member Toni Haughey voted against the measure when it was before the HPRC because she was against allowing any vinyl replacement windows.

“If we want to maintain our historic fabric and we want things done properly, and you have windows that were inappropriate, and you want to take those windows out then you need to replace them with the appropriate windows which is wood,” said Haughey.

All the commissioners were aware of the magnitude of overturning a decision of the Historic Preservation Review Commission.  This a decision by the HPRC has been appealed to the Planning Commission.

"...I would like to see the wood maintained,” said commissioner Don Dean.  “I would like to see the decision by the HPRC supported tonight.”

It was also noted that Thursday’s decision wouldn’t be precedent setting because each project is considered separately and the facts of each project will be different.

The first vote, to support the Historic Preservation Review Commission decision, was a tie with commissioners Oakes, Thomas and Sherry voting no and commissioners Rick Ernst, Dean and Lee Syracuse voting yes. 

The discussion was reopened after the deadlocked vote. Commissioners Ernst and Syracuse were swayed by the discussion and when a second motion was made, this time to support the appeal, they voted in favor of the applicants.

Later in the meeting planner Mark Rhoades said the process for issuing permits has been changed in order to avoid the same confusion that accompanied this application.  He said permits wouldn’t be issued until someone from the planning department can inspect the proposed building site to confirm all the details included in the permit application.

Claudia Fraser December 12, 2011 at 02:39 AM
The HPRC has violated the Brown Act. They are a rogue organization that doesn't't care about the people in the buildings or that they are killing jobs and lowering property values. Disband the HPRC now!! Repeal the entire historic preservation crap(HPRC). Governments job is to protect us physically and to also protect our liberty and freedom. In this case the government agency is only to confirm that the building is safe. Contact your elected represenatives and demand the repeal of the entire historic fiasco called the HPRC.
Bruce December 12, 2011 at 02:58 PM
Claudia, can you substantiate your accusation that the HPRC wants homeowners to use lead paint? Given that you can't even buy the stuff anymore, that either sounds like they are a little bit wacky, or you are.
Claudia Fraser December 12, 2011 at 04:25 PM
Yes Bruce I was being a little sarcastic. Its been a very frustrating and long road with Benicia. The HPRC purist (she called herself that not I) says she thinks the original windows were fine and could be repaired. Don't forget these original windows probably have lead paint. But don't take my word for it, watch channel 27 Tuesday at 830am to see the entire match. Do you own single pane 65 year old windows? Is it wacky to want a warm home in the winter?
Kathleen Hamilton December 12, 2011 at 06:23 PM
It is about time! What a ridiculous, long-drawn out process! HPRC has accomplished the onset of its own extinction through micromanagement and stubborn commitment to the archaic NOT the historic. I hope the community has the stamina to eradicate or at least minimize the power of HPRC; it should function in an advisory capacity under the auspices of City Planning or wherever Benicia decides HPRC fits into sensible and appropriate preservation efforts. I cannot imagine that anyone would regret the demise of HPRC. Congratulations Homeowners!
Bruce December 13, 2011 at 12:40 AM
I for one would regret the demise of the HPRC, at least en toto. Part of the reason I moved to Benicia was for the historic character, and I wouldn't want to see the historic homes in town botched up by tacky remodels just to add square footage, like you see in so many other communities. That would lower all of our home values all the more, and I do accept the basic premise of a certain responsibility to the community to maintain a historic home. It isn't right to expect the benefits of owning a historic home, but not any of the responsibilities. If you want radical freedom of ownership, buy something else. These things are easy for me to say; I don't own a historic home. But if I did I would have to respect the agreement I made to preserve it when I bought it (assuming that was the case). But yeah, I can totally understand that it can be maddening to try to fight city hall, and they should let people modernize their homes in reasonable ways (that don't detract from the historic character). After all, if you have electrical repairs, are they going to make you put in knob and tube wiring? Purists of any stripe that wield bureaucratic decision-making power, and who seem to love lording it over their fellow citizens, need to be called out on the mat. But that doesn't mean we should scrap the entire mechanism.


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